CDC, Janice Haney Carr/AP
In this 2008 file photograph provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
under a magnification of 5000X, this colorized scanning photomicrograph shows numbers of
clustered Gram-negative Salmonella Typhimurium bacteria.

N.J. Company Urged to Recall Peanuts

April 09, 2009 12:29 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The FDA has served a warrant to a New Jersey firm that refused to recall products associated with a salmonella outbreak or let the agency see pertinent records.

FDA Wants Information

On April 8, U.S. Marshals served an inspection warrant on Westco Fruit and Nuts Inc. because the company would not allow the Food and Drug Administration access to distribution records or recall some of its products, the FDA reported.

By law, "regulated companies" must allow the FDA to inspect their operations and provide access to distribution information. The agency can't force a product recall, however.

Westco, of Irvington, produces and distributes peanuts and peanut products, and has received supplies from Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), the company at the center of a long-running salmonella outbreak.

Officials from Westco did not return calls for comment, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.

The salmonella outbreak started in September 2008, and has affected hundreds of companies, according to Reuters. More than 3,200 products have been recalled, and hundreds of pepole have become sick.

Background: Congressional hearings; bankruptcy proceedings

On Feb. 11, Stewart Parnell, the owner of PCA, refused to answer questions from members of Congress regarding the current salmonella scare. When called to testify, Parnell said, “On the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your questions based on the protection afforded me under the United States Constitution,” Reuters reported.

Still, political and health officials are questioning PCA's actions. “Lives were lost and people were sickened because they took a chance, I believe knowingly, with products that were contaminated,” Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., was quoted as saying.

FDA officials stated that they have evidence of PCA selling products contaminated with salmonella in 2007 even though internal tests revealed the presence of the bacteria.

Reuters stated that the current salmonella outbreak has possibly killed eight, and has sickened at least 600. The FBI is now working with the FDA to conduct a criminal investigation of the company.

On Feb. 9, PCA closed a processing plant in Plainview, Texas, after a test indicated that salmonella could be present there. The New York Times quoted a statement from the Texas Department of State Health Services saying, “it does not appear that any of the implicated products—peanut meal, granulated peanuts and dry roasted peanuts—have reached consumers.”

In the wake of a salmonella outbreak, PCA also decided to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in February, according to the Associated Press.

Chapter 7 proceedings allow a company to liquidate its assets and give proceeds to creditors. PCA also considered Chapter 11 bankruptcy, under which a company attempts to reduce debt and stay in business. However, officials felt future business prospects didn’t look promising.

“It’s regrettable, but it's inevitable with the events of last month,” Andrew S. Goldstein, a bankruptcy lawyer who filed the petition, said in an AP article.

The bankruptcy proceeding may delay the lawsuits filed against PCA because of the salmonella outbreak, but lawyers said they planned to ask a judge to let the cases move forward anyhow.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and the food industry are in agreement that something must be done to improve food safety, according to the Baltimore Sun.

“You’ve had the consumer community, the expert community clamoring for this for over a decade,” Michael R. Taylor, a former deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, stated. “What’s happened with this outbreak is it has just elevated the intensity of the political focus and the demand or expectation that something be done.”

Historical Context: PCA's past; corporations sacrificing consumer safety

The FDA has found that PCA shipped peanut products in 2007 and 2008, even after tests found bacterial contamination in the food, USA Today reports.

In some of the 12 cases reported by the FDA, the company had the product tested again by another lab, with clean results. But the product should have been destroyed after the first test, said Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, because a retest may not have found the salmonella.
Consumer advocates are appalled at the company and its alleged attempts to save money while endangering customer safety, but are also casting doubt on the government’s ability to protect consumers.

“This kind of lab-shopping is absolutely shocking, and it really shows that the FDA’s program is inadequate to protect American consumers,” said Sarah Klein, who works for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to KRIS-TV in Corpus Christi, Texas.

But this is far from the first time a company has been accused of knowingly distributing a subpar—or even deadly—product to save money despite consumer dangers. The baby food company Beech-Nut was famously fined for doing so in 1987, and Ford allegedly decided not to fix a deadly design flaw in the Pinto despite knowing the potential consequences to drivers.

Related Topic: Pistachio recall

Concern over a potential salmonella contamination prompted a recall of pistachios recently. With the move came questions about whether the FDA would make changes in its oversight measures.

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